Six Nations voting history: Chiefs held first referendum in 1881

SIX NATIONS — The issue of voting on maters of importance to Six Nations has been a troublesome issue since long before the RCMP raids of 1922 and 1924. The matter arose as presented by Seneca Chief John Hill, on behalf of his Nation as recorded in the Council minutes of June 7th, 1881.

“John Hill spoke on behalf of Senecas and said that they would rather change this council to voting, in that way would hasten the Council, thereby much of our time would be saved.”

Not only the Canadian government was becoming impatient with the slowness of Council in coming to most any decision, but a good number of the sitting chiefs agreed and were looking for a way to speed things up so more could issues could be covered and resolved.

“Henry Clinch spoke on behalf of the Oneidas, Cayugas, Tuscaroras and Delawares agreeing to voting – Then the matter was referred to the Fire Keepers and decided in favour of the proposition of the Mohawks (the reaffirmation of traditional procedures).”

“Chief Johnson, the Interpreter, and the Chairman and Secretary (Josiah Hill) spoke against the decision just made on the grounds that the Majority were in favour of the change, as was proposed also on the grounds that the Chiefs often take up a great deal of time speaking on trifling matters. (47).”

But there was a third position put forth by Mohawk Chief A.G. Smith.

His recommendation was that, “… when a question has come to what we often call a dead lock, the Chiefs shall have the power to settle such questions by vote.”

Traditionalists rejected any change to the form on decision making as spelled out in the Great Law, while more modernists were looking for a way to make it faster and more efficient.

The internal memorandum filed by the Supt. show’s the government’s reluctance to interfere with the political affairs of Six Nations, hoping they could resolve the issue in their own way.

The Memorandum reads:

“The subject of a change in the Council having been submitted the Supt. On the 26 April last, – it appears to have been discussed in, and out of Council, ever since, and the Supt. Was informed that today the views or wishes of the Chiefs would be conveyed to him, but, they are, this afternoon, again discussing the matter, and at 5 PM, no prospect of a decision.   It appears better not to press the matter, but that time be given, that the action for progress may come from themselves, as it is likely to do.

Speakers Report:

About 6 PM, Speaker Burning rose and said: The subject would have been before announced, but discussion had arisen preventing any intimation. Various opinions had been expressed, and finally, submitted, according to their rules to the Fire Keepers, whose decision is which he announces as that of the Council, namely that no change take place in the organization of the Council, only an endeavour to improve and expedite business before them.

Discussion resumed:

Notwithstanding the above decision, discussion resumed and continued until 7 o’clock., when the Supt. Dressed the Chiefs, to much the same effect as he did on April 26th concluding with the hope that they will yet act wisely and well.”

Discussions continued at the Council of June 1881.

“The Speaker reports the decision of the Council, to the effect, that no change in the Constitution of their Council shall take place, simply an improvement, that the voice of each band be by one Speaker only. Some further discussion arose, during which the Supt. said, such is irregular, but, if any Chief disapproves of such decision, he is at liberty to protest, and, he, the Supt., will record such protest.”

Those who chose to protested the decision included, Chief Josiah Hill, (Tusc.), Alex G. Smith (Mohawk), John Hill (Seneca), M. Anthony (Del.), Richard Hill (Tusc.), and Chief Joseph Porter (Oneida).

The issue never really went away as discussions on the principle to vote or not to vote on internal matters continued. It was clear the Council, as a whole, did not support voting in a Canadian election, but some felt it would be expedient to vote on internal affairs.

The point of the matter was missed apparently as the lengthy discussions continued within Council and between Chiefs. Ironically, the measure that was supposed to speed up decision making, was the source of more delay and sometimes heated discussion on other matters.

Meanwhile a new pressure was besetting the Chiefs. The Indian Department told the Council that the Justice Department was threatening to deduct $350 in legal fees from the Six Nations trust fund in defending individual Six Nations people in court.

The Chiefs said no, but at the same time proposed a “referendum” to get the people’s pulse on the matter to present a united front against the government’s threat. But rather than follow the traditional path of council in decision making “across the fire” which they were trying to uphold, Council decided to vote on the matter.

“The Council after a long discussion among the Chiefs decided (that although this step is departing from the rule, customary, and usage of the confederation of the Six Nations), to come and urge their respective bands to do the same, and vote down this monstrous evil which has crept into our confederacy.”

He was speaking of the division within the Council over recommendations to begin to follow the white tradition of voting. So in essence, they were voting on whether to vote or not.

In all, 261 of 985 males over 21-years participated in the referendum vote of November 10th. Sixty voted to accept the expenditure to the Justice Department while 201 voted against it.

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